On Monday, Anju and Shyam Narayan TK, two subtitle writers who work on Malayalam films, issue a statement attacking Netflix India. The streaming service had “butchered” and “watered down” their work on Thallumaala, a Malayalam film released on the platform last Saturday, the authors claimed.
Talk to Coach, Anju declined to provide details on specific instances where translations were changed, and how, pending discussions with the streaming service and producers. The duo’s work has appeared unreleased on other platforms, such as Amazon Prime Video.
Netflix did not respond to a request for comment and did not provide any of the information used in this story.
This isn’t the first time subtitle translators have complained about Netflix undermining the choices they made when translating a movie. Anju said other translators, like the prolific Rekha Haricharan, have spoken of similar experiences with Netflix.
In May 2021, Vivek Ranjit, screenwriter and subtitle writer, said that Netflix had also edited the translations it had prepared for Nayattu, a thriller directed by Martin Prakkat. He accused Netflix to “replace my contextual subtitles with simple translations ‘acceptable’ to them”. On Monday, Ranjit said he was able to change some lines after the movie started streaming on Netflix and he found out about the changes.
Netflix typically outsources subtitle preparation and proofreading to outside vendors, which the company calls Netflix Preferred Fulfillment Partners. There are two NPFPs in India: Prime Focus Technologies and Vista India. It is unknown which of these companies was involved in editing the Thallumaala translation; while Netflix typically offers vendors the option to add translator credit at the end of a movie, no one is credited for that movie.
The company’s translation choices have significant implications for how the film is seen around the world – Indian film subtitles in most languages are done as “bridge translations”, which translate essentially the English subtitles that are delivered to Netflix, as opposed to the translation of the original dialogues.
This is especially true for languages like Malayalam, which are probably not supported at source by providers translating, for example, into Japanese or French. The result is that an unfaithful or incomplete translation can become diluted further in other languages.
Haricharan, the subtitler who works on the Tamil films cited by Anju, told an interviewer in 2019 that unless production companies intervened, streaming services typically made changes without checking with producers first.
While Netflix hasn’t commented on the reasons for the changes, one possible reason emerges from the documentation it makes available to providers it partners with: captions should play naturally to people who don’t speak not the source language at all. There is a revealing excerpt from an FAQ on why Netflix’s subtitle guidelines are so demanding:
Netflix says clunky or unnatural English breaks the immersive experience it wants for non-English speaking audiences. “We may reject a file that contains translations that are grammatically correct, but are just colloquial phrases and expressions that don’t come naturally to the viewer,” Netflix says, adding that unnatural translations often indicate someone without a native fluency in the target language.
Some translators tend to retain honorifics in English translations. For example, the translators of Thallumaala have, in an earlier film Coach reviewed, retained terms like “chechi” (sister in Malayalam) while translating the dialogue. Netflix translations generally do not include these terms; following Netflix’s own guidelines, it seems likely that such elements raised red flags that led to a total overhaul of the subtitle files where such choices are made.